Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Louise Kobin's Alaska Ultrasport 2007 (Part I)

I have been thinking about the Alaska Ultrasport and wanting to try it since the first time I heard about it over 5 years ago. Even with all the information and stories I have heard from Eric I could never have imagined how brutal this race was going to be. It didn’t help that I had a cold before the race started and the morning before the start I woke up with an ear infection. Luckily I was able to start taking antibiotics right away.

Start at Knik Lake

Janice and Steve Tower drove us to the start at Knik Lake and just getting out of the car I found it hard to breathe because of the cold air. I’m not exactly sure what the temperature was at the start, but probably between -10 and -15. The race started at 2 pm outside a small bar, and the 33 participants lined up by an Alaska Ultrasport sign. At the start signal we started pedaling, skiing, or walking across the frozen lake. On my snow bike I had a rack in the rear with my negative 20 down sleeping bag, 2 Nashbar bags with extra clothes, and my down jacket in a compression sack under my saddle. On my handle bars I had a mount with a GPS and a LED flashlight and I also had 2 additional bags for food, goggles, extra gloves, toe and hand warmers, camera etc. I also carried my thermarest under my handle bars and I had a small frame bag (can’t fit much into the triangle of a 14" frame) with my stove, pot, spare tubes, and nalgene bottle.

Loaded Bike

After we crossed the lake we got onto trails in a forest. We ran into several dog sled teams tuning up for the Iditarod which starts one week after the Ultrasport. The dogs were so quite you could barely hear them. I was so excited about finally riding in the snow I was pushing fairly hard. I had to ditch my jacket and was riding comfortably in a long sleeved shirt and vest. It took Eric and I 5 hrs and 20 minutes to get to Luce’s which was the first CP, 50 miles into the race. It is a weird experience riding on a frozen river in the dark with nothing around but wilderness and all of the sudden you see a neon sign which says "Luce’s". Luce’s was a small bar/restaurant where we were able to refill camelbacks, dry some clothes out, warm up, and use the heated outhouse. I was so pumped up I was ready to leave after downing 2 bottles of juice and eating a snickers bar, and I might have been slightly impatient when Eric wanted a few more minutes to warm up before getting back on the bike. We still only took a 40 minute break before starting back on the river toward Skwentna, the 2nd CP. It was dark and cold, but the river was hard so we were making good time, although I was marveling at how slow we were. It took us 12 hrs to go the 90 miles to Skwentna lodge which is a small bed and breakfast in a town of 11 people. It was nice and warm inside and we hung our wet clothes by the woodstove and then sat down at the table for some food. The guy working the kitchen told us that it was his grandparents’ lodge which is frequented by hunters in the summer. Our cook was 18 years old and had grown up in Skwentna but was leaving for the military next summer. Nice kid, and he made awesome hamburgers and then he offered us a bed upstairs. Although I wasn’t sleepy, I knew we had to rest a little bit and we laid down for a sleepless 3 hours. When we got up at 6 am, I brought in half of a frozen PB and J sandwich from my bike and put it on the wood stove. I had it with a cup of tea as I was getting dressed and got all of my stuff ready.

Shell Lake Lodge

We left around 6:30 in the morning and our next CP was Fingerlake, approximately 45 miles away. Halfway to Fingerlake is another lodge at Shell lake where we stopped to use the outhouse. No reason to go outside unless you have to..... We arrived at Fingerlake at 2:25 in the afternoon. We took our clothes off to dry and sat down for an awesome meal of rice, beans, chicken and tortilla. This lodge is used for cooking classes and is pretty upscale by Alaskan standards. Still no indoor plumbing of course. Here we were also able to get our first drop-bags and I grabbed some ho-ho’s, trail mix, Reese.s cups, batteries, and more toe and hand warmers. Again, I was way too excited to hang out and we left within an hour. Poor Eric, he knew the race hadn’t even started yet, and I was barely sitting down because I was calculating how fast I was going to make it to the next check point..... Riding to Puntilla lake became a bit more difficult with deeper snow and a lot of getting off and on the bike. The constant getting on and off the bike is very tiring when you are wearing tons of clothes including heavy winter boots, have a hard time breathing because of your facemask, and there is a giant sleeping bag to throw your leg over. With 5 miles to go according to my GPS I decided to take Janice’s advice and "when in doubt, let air out". All of the sudden it was much easier to control my bike and I felt like I was flying down some steep hills (at a speedy pace of 7 mph). It got pretty windy toward the end, and had started to snow a bit when we finally arrived at the cabin at Puntilla Lake around midnight. A few people had passed us and we had caught some of the leaders so the cabin was full. People were spread out on bunk beds, a small couch and some cots. The checker at the lodge was great and made me a huge bowl of clam chowder which I wolfed down while laying on a cot. I tried going to sleep on the bunk bed, but after a couple of hours I woke up and my right hand was paralyzed and I felt like the my arm was on fire. It was so painful I had to get up and shake my arm around until the pain subsided and I was able to move my fingers again. This happens to me after almost every 24 hr race and I always attributed it to my camelbak pressing on my brachial plexus. It always makes it impossible to sleep for more than an hour or two.

At 4 o’clock am I climbed up to the top bunk and woke Eric up. I told him I was ready to leave because I couldn’t sleep anymore. Eric said it could be a 24 hour trip to Rohn, the next checkpoint, and that it probably wasn’t a good idea to leave since the weather was pretty bad. Also, there was no trail over Rainy pass because the snow machines had not cleared it for the Iditarod yet. Our options were to bushwhack our own trail for a few miles through the windy and cold pass or to take a 30 mile detour. I spend a few more miserable hours sitting up in bed to keep my arm from killing me. In the morning we were told that we could have breakfast at the main lodge. I was in so much pain I couldn’t think about food. All I wanted to do, was to get going. I was even thinking about going for a hike because it seemed like moving around made my pain disappear. I came to my senses and had pancakes, sausage, eggs and coffee with Eric and 2 other racers, Jim and Jacques. After breakfast we went back to the little cabin and packed up our stuff and left around 10:30 am.

Hell's Gate

The riding up Hell’s gate, the detour, was pretty good. We were riding through frozen marsh-land and since there had been little snow this season the alder bushes were sticking up and we had to ride through them. I was a bit worried about getting a flat or a stick in my derailleur. After just a short bit of riding I realized I could not carry my camelbak, because it was making my arm hurt while riding. Eric took my bladder and I just strapped my camelbak to my sleeping bag. This worked out great except now it was pretty hard to drink, especially after Eric’s hose froze up and we had to stop and open the top to drink out of it. By dark we just made it onto the river and my GPS showed 25 miles to Rohn (as the bird flies).

Eric said we might have to get off the river and bivy before Rohn, but I thought we should keep going for a while to get as close as possible. I was never looking at my watch, so I had to idea what time it was. Time didn’t really matter anyway. It got really cold and at one point I stopped to get a body warmer out and stick it to my chest. It took me a few minutes to catch back up and I kept getting colder and colder. I also realized that I hadn’t had anything to drink or eat for a long time. Eric got my down jacket out for me and I felt warmer at least. According to our GPS we now only had 1 or 2 miles left when we hit some overflow. We could see tire tracks on the other side of the water, but we definitely did not want to risk getting our feet wet, or falling through the ice. At this point I was bonking pretty bad and was just waiting for Eric to find a safe way around the water. My GPS showed 500 feet... We had to drag our bikes up a steep little climb, and then we were 300 feet away.... I was sooooooo exhausted and cold and out of it but I knew I could drag myself 300 feet. Wouldn’t there be some light coming from the cabin?? No, that’s because there was no cabin where our GPS waypoint showed it was supposed to be. Eric thought we might have missed it somehow, so while I didn’t move he went back and looked around. No checkpoint, no woodstove, no hot Tang.... I realized that if we weren’t going to find the check point I was going to have to get in my sleeping bag because I could not produce any heat. I had no fuel in me and I was completely bonking and had trouble seeing straight. Eric told me to run around to try to get some body heat up while he got my thermarest and sleeping bag out. I had no energy to run, so I walked back and forth at a snail’s pace. Hardly enough movement to produce heat. I got into the frozen sleeping bag and was not the least bit warmer. I heard Eric breaking tree branches off to build a fire to warm me up. All I was doing was trying not to panic. We had no idea how far it was to Rohn and there was definitely no one else to help me out. Eric got the fire going and I felt slightly less cold, I started shivering. Then I heard he got his little isbit stove out and heated up water from his camelbak. I was able to turn over to my side and drink almost a full small Nalgene bottle of hot water and then he made another bottle that I put on my stomach. I finally started feeling warmer, but I was still really scared. It didn’t help that we started hearing wolves howling in the dark. At this point Eric had to go and find the checkpoint to see if he could get some help. He left at 6:47 am. I thought I could keep warm in the sleeping bag while he was gone. It is a strange feeling being completely alone in the wilderness, dark, and cold with wolves howling around you. I don’t know if I was hallucinating or dreaming but I thought I could hear cars and see lights and I had all kinds of weird thoughts going through my head.

I must have been asleep when Eric came back because I didn’t hear the sound of the snow machine. He said he found the checkpoint about 1.5 miles down the trail. I really would like to have a chance to continue the race but if I took a ride on the snow machine I would be cheating. I did not want to make things dangerous of more difficult for Eric so I was willing to drop out of the race, but I was so happy when he said I could try pushing my bike. Before I got out of my sleeping bag I mixed a packet of protein powder into the warm water bottle I still had on my stomach. That gave me a little bit of energy and more heat. I was completely exhausted but I was able to get on my bike and start pedaling very very slowly. Eric stayed behind and packed up my pad and sleeping bag. The 1.5 miles seemed to take forever, but finally I saw the little airstrip and then the lodge. Someone took my bike and someone else helped me inside. (As Eric was helping me edit this, he told me he was the one to lift me of my bike and help me inside). I was totally out of it but I sat down and I was helped out of my clothes and served hot Tang out of a mug. As the 2 women of the group took my long pants of, they laughed and said they could tell I was from California from my tanned legs. They joked that they should put me outside in the snow in a bikini and I could be an advertisement on their web-site. When they checked out my hands they noticed I had frost bite in my left middle finger. I had a big blister on the back of my finger, and the fingertip was hard and had no blood flow. Lisa, who used to be an EMT bandaged the finger up and said it might be OK if I was able to keep it from freezing again. Eric also had frost bitten his thumb when he was helping me out that night.


At 9:48 AM, March 13, 2007, Blogger Bernice said...

Dang Lou,

I thought I was tough (and nuts),,,but you take the cake! Glad you came back to write this! Hope you are recovering fast.


At 12:19 PM, March 13, 2007, Blogger LyndaW said...

Lou, Great report. I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for part 2. Thanks for sharing.

At 6:40 AM, March 14, 2007, Blogger Dave Harris said...

Lou, you gotta be the toughest nut out there. That is some serious drive. I've seen the results so know that you finished...and am glad to see you are able to type this report up! Congrats on an awesome effort and thanks for the writeup. Looking forward to pt II, but (from one crackhead to another) do take your time to recover well, ya hear?

At 5:01 AM, March 19, 2007, Blogger Matt said...

Holy Cow! Can't wait to read the rest.


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